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Stage set for dramatic dialogue on rights in Largo

Published June 22, 2003

The angst level finally hit "extreme" in Largo last week as the City Commission squirmed over whether to approve a local ordinance that would help protect certain groups of people from discrimination.

"I know the city commissioners want to do the right thing," said City Manager Steven Stanton. "But they are just in torment about how far you get out in front of your community."

They probably weren't the only ones feeling tormented. Imagine being a member of the gay or transgender community and listening to city commissioners question whether you are entitled to protection from discrimination. "Isn't everyone?" they might have been thinking.

And Stanton is enduring his own special brand of hell.

"These social issues, for city managers - we're not trained in this stuff," he said.

Largo residents didn't ask for this. Instead, the commissioners started talking about whether to create a citywide human rights ordinance after a fair housing survey showed substantial racial discrimination in rental housing in Largo and after accusations of racial harassment arose in a city department.

Charlie Harper, elected to the City Commission in March 2002, was appalled by the survey results and called for passage of a human rights ordinance that would ban discrimination citywide in housing, employment and public accommodations such as hotels and restaurants. Harper advocated banning discrimination against all people, including homosexuals and transgender people, who are not protected by federal, state or county laws.

Those who thought they knew Largo and Largonians might have gasped at Harper's naivete. Largo, land of retirees living in mobile home parks. Largo, which prides itself on a rock-bottom tax rate and stretching a dollar. Largo, a community with a history of racial prejudice.

But at a City Commission work session in April, Harper got strong support for such an ordinance from four other members of the seven-member City Commission: Pat Burke, Pat Gerard, Jean Halvorsen and recent appointee Gay Gentry. It was time, Harper declared, for Largo to become a more metropolitan, more open-minded community.

Last week the City Commission held a second work session on the issue, but the tone had changed. The city staff had done more research on the legal difficulties and potential costs of enforcing a citywide human rights ordinance. City commissioners also had begun to hear from people. And a couple of local residents who have great influence in local civic affairs had made no secret of their disapproval.

Harper was the first to buckle, but he was torn about it.

"I just can't stand discrimination of any kind," said Harper, a self-professed "short and fat" person who has encountered prejudice because of his size. "But this goes beyond laws ... it gets into morality and religion and all kinds of things."

Harper said he was not able to support extending protections to people who are homosexuals or transgendered - a category that the city has begun referring to as "gender identity or expression" because these people, born with the characteristics of one gender, may later choose to express the identity of the other gender. He said that although he wouldn't discriminate against those people himself, he couldn't support an ordinance banning discrimination against them without asking the public to approve it in a referendum.

After Monday's meeting, Harper acknowledged that he had been contacted by some individuals who said that protecting those categories of people from discrimination "was not the Christian thing to do" and that it was, in effect, advocating sinful lifestyles.

Even in previous meetings, Mayor Bob Jackson had made no secret of his disagreement with extending protections beyond those already provided by other laws. Commissioner Harriet Crozier also opposed a citywide ordinance that went beyond federal law. Commissioner Gentry seemed to back down on her earlier support, suggesting that the city government should adopt the protections for its own employees first to set an example for the community.

After Harper's retreat at last week's meeting, commissioners Burke and Gerard, still strong proponents of protecting everyone from discrimination citywide, feared they had lost the majority.

"It's disappointing to hear people you like and respect say what you think are ignorant things," said Gerard after the meeting. "I have an emotional reaction to that ... I want to shake them.

"It's not as if this ordinance would give (gay people and transgender people) the right to exist. They exist right now beside you," Gerard said. "I'm not asking you to like them. I'm asking you to give them basic human rights - the right to have a job, to eat in a restaurant, without being discriminated against."

Burke has been one of the most passionate supporters of the human rights ordinance and has argued that if the city refuses to extend protections to those groups, it is, in effect, declaring that it is okay to discriminate against homosexuals and transgendered individuals in Largo. She is aghast that the city would even consider leaving anyone out. On the other hand, if Largo adopts the protections, she believes "other cities and the county will follow."

Other cities already have gone where Largo fears to tread. St. Petersburg has a human rights ordinance, approved in January 2002, that extends protection to homosexuals, though not to those in the transgender category. More than 200 cities nationwide, including Tampa and a handful of others in Florida, have local laws that extend protection to classes beyond those mentioned in federal civil rights laws.

At the conclusion of last week's work session, Largo commissioners decided to hold a public hearing in August so the public can get in on the conversation about who should be protected from discrimination in Largo. Commissioners likely will vote after that on whether to approve a citywide human rights ordinance and separately, whether to adopt a workplace anti-discrimination policy that will apply to city government employees.

By August, both supporters and critics of expanded human rights protections will have had time to marshal their forces in the community. Commissioners realize that the August public hearing could be difficult, even rambunctious, as Largo - a place Stanton notes "still has a very strong small-town fabric to it" - tries to figure out where it stands on human rights.

"This is a very tough issue," Harper acknowledged. "But one thing I'm proud of is at least we're having dialogue about it. That wouldn't have happened in Largo 10 years ago."

[Last modified June 22, 2003, 01:33:03]

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